Daniel Eran Dilger
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10 FAS: 4 – Iain Thomson: iPhone Too Powerful vs Palm, WM, RIM

Iain Thomson: iPhone Too Powerful vs Palm, WM, RIM
Daniel Eran Dilger
The fourth fake Apple scandal was so over the top I’d planned to reserve it for number ten, but I simply couldn’t contain this crowning achievement of scandal invention any longer.

Fake Apple Scandal 4: the iPhone is Too Powerful!
Iain Thomson, writing in iTNews, announced that the iPhone may never be secure, because “the computing power of the iPhone is so great that it will be almost impossible to protect completely.”

Iain Thomson

For the record, iTNews is an Australian branch of the UK based VNU corporation, the home of various credibility impaired websites, including:

  • The Inquirer, a shoddy knockoff of the Register.
  • Gizmodo, sponsor of the iPhone boycott.
  • PC Magazine, which paid Dvorak to compare the iPhone to Hitler.

Like the opinions of CNET/ZDNet bloggers that mingle with Fox News content as they are syndicated ad naseum across various brands of the same stale content, Thomson’s sensationalist speculation that the iPhone was “too powerful” was similarly pushed through lots of VNU corporate web fronts that all share the same headline panic system.

While it may seem over the top to worry that the iPhone is a security problem because it is too powerful, Thomson built his story on comments made by Phillip Dunkelberger, who Thomson described as “a former Apple employee and now president of encryption firm PGP.”

He quoted Dunkelberger as saying, “There are so many security issues with the iPhone, because it is not just a phone. From an IT guy’s perspective it is a Linux computer with communications built in.”

[iPhone never secure – Google Search]
[Secret iPhone Details Lost in a Sea of Hype and Hate: Gizmodo]


The Scary World of Linux Computers.
Dunkelberger likely wasn’t intending to suggest that the iPhone was running Linux, but instead that it is a full computing environment with multiple vectors for potential exploits to attack. It is interesting that he brought up Linux however, because it is a scary subject for IT staff beholden to Microsoft.

The majority of Microsoft oriented corporate IT staff I’ve worked with have a sort of reverential fear of Linux. They like to talk about it in a respectful sort of way, but they are often afraid to actually use it. Deploying a Linux server without an outside support agreement is a very scary task to users who have felt safe for years in their codependent relationship with Microsoft.

After investing tens of thousands of dollars into their troubled relationship, after spending sleepless nights nursing NT servers back to health after they fall off the wagon to binge on worms and the other malware they have a genetic propensity to be addicted to, after growing dependent upon calling up the Redmond Father’s TechNet for advice on how to deal with the regular schizoid mania and subsequent crashing of Windows, it’s difficult to start over with something entirely new.

IT managers are a whipped bunch. Linux is an allure associated with danger, like a pretty girl on the bus who smiles at the haggard, middle aged family man. She’s just being friendly, not inviting him into a blissful world. He knows he has to think about his commitments to Microsoft, all of the fighting that would have been for nothing, all of the holding back of hair that he’s already dealt with and wants to use as credit toward an established relationship. It’s too much starting over, too late in the game.

Today’s adherents of Microsoft are like the COBOL programmers in the 90s: too old to learn new tricks, and too tired to even want to try. They are dinosaurs, dependent upon resisting change to maintain their proprietary world.

Change isn’t resisted successfully for long, but holdout adherents can oppose progress and tenaciously hold things up for longer periods of time than one might imagine possible.

[Smartphones: iPhone and the Big Fat Mobile Industry]
[Mac OS X vs Linux on the iPhone and Mobile Devices]

Smartphone market share in Q3 2006
Is Linux Really a Problem?
Of course, there are lots of phones that run Linux already–far more than run Windows Mobile–and they are not plagued by security problems.

There are also tens of millions of embedded routers and phone systems running Linux or its BSD cousin, and none have suffered a scourge of security rashes anything remotely like Microsoft’s Windows. Perhaps security isn’t just a product of being powerful or having market share.

Why would the iPhone’s closed BSD environment be a special security risk? Hackers working on the iPhone have to build and install their own shell before they can even control it in ideal settings in a lab.

If iPhone enthusiasts can’t hack their own phones without first manually installing their own root access and shell environment, why are pundits distributing scary stories about the potential for iPhones to turn on their human masters and form a rebellion mechanical army of robot terrorists?

Why didn’t these flacks ever tell us about their brainstorming efforts to imagine security problems for Windows Mobile devices?

[iPhone OS X Architecture: the BSD Unix Userland]

What about a PC Not Running Linux?
Comparing the iPhone to Linux is a subtle effort to associate it with fear of an exciting but scary unknown. Imagine if Dunkelberger had said the iPhone was, “from an IT guy’s perspective, a desktop computer with communications built in.” That changes things dramatically!

That would sound like something any IT manager could handle. Windows Mobile has purported to be a pocket sized PC for nearly a decade now.

In reality, all of today’s smartphones have about as much computing power as a desktop PC from 2003; they can address gigabytes of RAM storage and rapidly execute calculations fast enough to play video and decode wireless.
In some ways, today’s smartphones are even more advanced than the latest consumer desktops.

Iain, Just How Much More Powerful is the iPhone?
The vast majority of all smartphone mobiles and similar consumer electronics products run the same ARM architecture that’s used in the iPod and the iPhone. That is the same ARM processor architecture developed by Acorn and Apple, principally to power the Newton.

The iPhone includes far more Flash RAM than other phones on the market, and has some unique features like its large, high resolution screen. Overall however, its hardware is really not much greater than other mobile devices.

What really sets it apart is its software. Other phones can’t browse the web decently, or present real email, or even display a nice user interface. The iPhone isn’t more powerful in terms of raw potential, it’s more powerful in applied practicality.

From that perspective, Dunkelberger’s comments at the root of Thomson’s sensational hit piece are flaccid and meaningless. Why is he saying them?

[Origins: Why the iPhone is ARM, and isn’t Symbian]

Who is This Dunkelberger?
Reader Eilliot writes, “The phrase ‘former Apple employee’ gives a sense of technical authority to Dunkelberger’s claims about iPhone’s security.

Phillip DunkelbergerPhillip DunkelbergerPhillip Dunkelberger

”However, Dunkelberger, who holds a B.A. in Political Science–not CompSci–held senior marketing and sales positions at Apple, was a Symantec sales veteran, a marketing chief for Vantive, and PGP’s VP for Sales, before returning as CEO.

“While no doubt a smart guy, it isn’t exactly like he was a software engineer or working on OS X security. His saying that the iPhone is a Linux computer undermines his credibility.

”Quoting a ‘former Apple employee’ seems to imply he’s got some special inside info. Is there some unique perspective he’s offering, or is he just spreading FUD?“

[Enterprise Data Protection Executive Forum – InfoWorld]
[Doll Capital Management Adds Phillip Dunkelberger – (PDF)]
[Vantive shuffles top management – CNET]
[CEO Spotlight: Phillip Dunkelberger, PGP Corporation – Sterling Hoffman]
Iain Thomson: Selling Security Sensationalism.
Oh no! Dunkelberger is a salesman and marketer, feeding sound bites to a lazy journalist to carve into a sensational headline without any facts to back up the wild assertion, and offering no comparison to other similar products for reference.

Thomson reported Dunkelberger’s postulation that ”if hackers did get control of the iPhone, they could use it to dial expensive phone lines and steal funds from users.“ Of course, if Martians land, they can eat our brains, too. Lets all start wearing iron helmets to prevent that horror from happening.

Thomson gave activation spoofing as an example of ”iPhone hacking,“ failing to understand that activating an iPhone to browse the web is not a security exploit relative to the subject.

[Unlocking the iPhone: The GSM SIM and Activation]

The iPhone in a Climate of Unbridled Fear.
He also cites panic announced by VNU colleague Shaun Nichols, who worried that users might see a dialable hyperlink in Safari, click it randomly, and be connected to a phone call they would be unable to hang up on out of sheer panic. As they cowered in fear, their iPhone would be connected to an expensive call, perhaps to China.

Of course, the fear related to dialing an unintended phone number can be alleviated by touching the number and verifying that the linked number that pops up matches the number they intend to call. Imagined security exploit, or unfounded panic attached to the iPhone to maintain a ridiculous climate of fear?

Why is the tech world so desperately worried about the iPhone? It has a lot to do with Apple’s ability to build competitive hardware. Which segues into the next scandal.

10 Fake Apple Scandals: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

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